Rachel Paine Caufield named her 55-pound mutt “Seneca” after the Seneca Falls Convention (an influential women’s rights convention in the mid-1800s) and recalls reading the Federalist Papers at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial with the same sort of fondness others lend to childhood memories. She was a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution after completing her doctorate at The George Washington University and has been a politics professor at Drake since 2001.
My assignment was to find out who Caufield is, beyond professor, beyond American Judicature Society staff member, beyond her campus label of “the politics lady.”
You know what I learned? That’s she’s the politics lady.
Full disclosure: Caufield is a former professor of mine and now directs the Iowa Caucus Project for which I’m interning this semester. But that didn’t stop me from learning copious amounts about her during our interview.
Her office on the second floor of Meredith Hall has 10 bookshelves, all full.
“I have just as many at home, if not more,” she says, but shakes her head when I ask if she’s read them all. “Any professor who says they’ve read every single book in their office either doesn’t have very many books, or is lying,” she tells me.
In addition to book spines, photos of her with friends and small trinkets from her travels also adorn the shelves. One piece she calls attention to is a figurine, just a couple inches tall, of a man in colonial dress.
“Once upon a time, I loved James Madison,” she explains, describing fellow professor Joanna Mosser and her frequent searches for Madison memorabilia.
She tells a story about finding the figures and buying them for herself and Mosser, but wanting to keep their origin a secret from her friend. So she wrapped both of them in copies of “Federalist 10,” tied one with a blue ribbon, one with a red ribbon and put them in her own and Mosser’s mailboxes in the Meredith Arts and Sciences office. “I really am a nerd,” she says, laughing.
Caufield laughs a lot and the sound easily fills her high-ceilinged office and can be heard in the hallway outside, even with the door closed.
“You gotta have fun,” she insists. “I also put giant sunglasses on the prime minister of Japan on [Professor Mary] McCarthy’s door. People wondered who did that. I did.” She pulls the transparent overhead sheets she used to accessorize Yukio Hatoyama from a desk drawer to show me. “God that was fun.”
But Caufield also insists that, “I haven’t always been a politics geek, although my mom will tell you that randomly when I was a kid I always wanted to watch the State of the Union address… But the thing I did every single day was play the piano.”
In fact, one of her favorite purchases is the piano she bought for her house last year. She’s taken lessons since she was a young girl growing up in Schenectady, N.Y., and says she still plays almost daily.
“I love Bach because I think it’s fun to play,” she says. “And I like Beethoven German dances because I get to pound a little bit when I want to be loud. And when I want to be quiet or light, I have a full book of sonatinas. Oh, and last Christmas I also bought a Charlie Brown Christmas album.”
Somehow the topic of the holidays segues back into politics, as Caufield explains that this year she’ll have a Caucus Tree rather than a Christmas tree.
She’ll decorate it with pictures of all the candidates, quotes from candidates, American flags, “really anything red white and blue will work,” she says. Revealing her crafting abilities, she also says she makes campaign pins into ornaments. “It takes a lot of work to make a good caucus tree,” she tells me resolutely.
The caucuses are something Caufield usually talks about with a noticeable enthusiasm. Although there are other things for which she expresses an obvious affection — her best friend, her dog, her students — the Iowa caucuses obviously hold a special place in Caufield’s heart.
“It wasn’t until my first caucus that I really embraced practical politics as something that I loved,” she says. In fact, she says, her first Iowa caucus “was by all accounts, by every measure, the most important political experience I have ever gone through because I realized that these sorts of community decision-making processes are still alive, which is almost impossible to believe.”
She really is the politics lady.
“It’s not actually image,” she tells me with a chuckle. A quick glance to the stoic face of a miniature James Madison staring back at me from the bookshelf is all the confirmation I need.
Rachel Paine Caufield at a glance…Politics professor at Drake
From Schnectady, N.Y.
B.A. in mathematics and political science at Hood College in Md.
Ph.D. from Department of Political Science at the George
Washington University in D.C.